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After losing jobs, many of Utah's home care workers haven't returned to the industry

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Many of Utah's home health care workers left at the start of the pandemic, and never returned to the field. (KUTV)

Utah's home care industry is struggling to recover from major setbacks during the pandemic. The health care industry is learning that people want to be at home, even when they are sick or need help. And among Utah's aging population, home care needs are skyrocketing.

But the industry is struggling to meet current demand, as many workers left at the start of the pandemic, and never returned to the field.

Personal care aides do hard work. They help with the aspects of daily living, like cleaning, errands, transportation, and bathing.

"When asked, what does a personal care aide do, or what can they do? The answer is yes,” said Matt Hansen, the executive director of the Home Care and Hospice Association of Utah, which represents about 80% of the agencies in Utah.

Hansen said hiring was already tough in the industry before the pandemic made it worse, as most clients were isolating.

"Initially, hardly anybody wanted anybody in the home, understandably. There's a lot of fear,” he said.

Now, the demand for home care has skyrocketed — but the workers aren't coming back.

"We're competing with other industries like fast food. And unfortunately, because reimbursement rates aren't higher, we lose a lot of workers to fast food," Hansen said.

He said another major hurdle has been that unemployment benefits are often better than the pay for working.

"As things have started to ramp up again, it's been harder to attract them back into the industry, or to come back to work sometimes, because the unemployment benefits have been higher in some cases than what they can earn by working," Hansen said.

Hansen said nationally, the industry is looking into numerous fraudulent claims of unemployment.

And it's not just a personal caregiver shortage. Certified nursing assistants aren't working in their field, either. CNAs are licensed caregivers who can do the medical aspects of home health.

Hansen said right now there are 20,000 licensed CNAs in Utah with an active two-year certification. Of those 20,000, he said only 14,000 are working in the field.

Direct care workers feel under appreciated. It's not easy work,” he said.

There is a positive effect the pandemic could have on home care, as many health care norms are changing.

"There really is a movement throughout the nation, where we're seeing so much more can be done at home. You get more of what you pay for,” said Hansen.

He said Medicare and Medicaid are starting to realize this, too, with more personal care being covered.

"They see if we can provide a little bit of help for people in their home, we can keep them out of the hospital, we can keep them more functional for longer," Hansen said.

Hansen said the personal caregiver field isn't just for people on a medical career track. He said there are people in Utah who have cared for family members or may be retired but looking for ways to give back. He said they should consider home care. Hansen admitted it's hard work, and the pay is comparable to a fast food job, but said most find it rewarding to make a real difference in someone's life.